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[For easier reading, engage both the aA and Pilcrow (¶) symbols at the top right of the chapter.]

Mahrham had been unusually quiet during the rest of the evening and when I came back from my nightly toilet trip to the garden, I found him sitting hunched up and brooding on our blanket. He looked up rather miserably as I came in and I put my arm around his shoulder as I sat down next to him.
'Does David think sparkle things are Eater?'
I hesitated for a moment, then waggled my head slowly. It was the question I'd been fearing, but if Mahrham had already worked it out, then it was a certainty that Tesharah and Tamori had too and therefore knew what they might well be sending an expedition team into. I wondered whether Tesharah would be angry with me for not being perfectly honest with him. But then, I didn't know it was Eater. It could well be some sort of shiny insects or reptiles or even … ice-lorrits or something.
Mahrham's expression grew even more worried as he thought about it. Then he suddenly looked up, pointing out that Eater couldn't stand water. Why would Eater come into the mountains with all the ice and snow around? There was only one logical reason I could think of and that was that its nest was up here and it had to come up here.
I tried to explain to Marhram that ice wasn't water. Although it was made of water, ice was actually a rock and if it was cold enough not to melt, then there wasn't any water. Even snow could be considered as just fluffy rock. Provided Eater didn't fall into the glacier or snowdrifts and avoided all the puddles, then it could probably cross over ice sheets. I wasn't so sure about snow; Eater's blackness would probably cause snow to melt if it sat on it for too long, but then, sitting down for a while didn't seem to be one of Eater's traits.
There were two other reasons I thought it might be Eater, one of which was of course the occasional mysterious disappearances and the other was the fact that of all the clans, Tesharah's was the second smallest, if not the smallest. That would be logical for the clan which had its holt closest to Eater's nest.
If I was right, then maybe the female was wrong in her assumption that having the holt above the snowline meant she was totally safe, though I had to admit it was doubtful if Eater could attack in any great numbers though the snow and ice. Certainly, it would be unable to cross the glacier and of course to get to the holt, it would have to get across the river, so all in all, maybe she was as secure as she assumed. I'd had some reservations when I'd first met her though and thought that having only the one female seemed uncomfortably like putting all your eggs in the one basket and even little Jake had learned not to do that!
Still, at this stage it was all speculation and Teshshin might be right after all, so I decided to concentrate on something else. Mahrham soon lost his gloomy look and didn't need any lyrics to his singing to tell me that what I was doing now was exactly what he wanted.

True to his word, Tesharah gave his consent for Mahrham, Corkai and me to go on the journey after he returned from hunting the next day. I had considered telling Tesharah of my suspicions about the flashes, but he didn't ask any more questions and somehow I got the idea it was something he didn't want to know officially. Having given his consent, Tesharah then proceeded to disappoint me by saying we would have to put off the trip until well into summer because he could not afford to lose all of us before the larder was sufficiently stocked to support the holt during next winter's roving. I accepted his decision with as good grace as I could muster, while wondering with some misgivings whether he had meant 'lose all of us' in the temporary or permanent sense. Knowing Tesharah's practicality, he probably meant both.
Mahrham and I promptly asked Corkai if he was willing to go, which was something we might have done earlier but I didn't want him to get either too eager or too negative before we even knew whether Tesharah would agree. As I'd expected, Corkai was excited at the prospect of the trip and seemed to be just as interested in being able to visit the place where his father had gone to gather the sparking rock as he was in actually finding out what had happened to him.

The larder gradually filled as the days grew warmer and longer, mainly with croki, but there was a good selection of other animals for variety. Branai, Porrhin and I had become something of a specialised team, hunting croki with our catapults. We would position ourselves in a line on the craggy slopes above the other team of hunters, waiting for the croki that bolted into the rocks. Of the three of us, Branai was the most accurate, usually at least disabling his quarry with just one stone, which was just as well considering that with the speed of a croki, all you generally got was one shot. I had to admit I missed as often as I hit, but they really were incredibly fast, so I just sighed and kept practising. Porrhin on the other hand, wasn't particularly accurate either but he used a much bigger stone than Branai or me and what he hit invariably died instantly.
Porrhin was a great deal happier these days and was rarely seen out of the company of his new mate, a seemingly shy little one called Kintel, barely bigger than Horla had been. I soon found out from Porrhin that far from being shy, he was very demanding, keeping a delighted Porrhin very occupied indeed.
With the warmer weather, bathing gradually became more of a pleasure and there was usually someone or a pair out in the garden, enjoying a bath. Just walking around the paths with all the bushes and trees in bloom or fruit was also very relaxing, though a small part of the garden was avoided by all as one of the old ones had chosen this summer to start rotting. Although the smell wasn't as bad as might have been expected, he wasn't at all a pretty sight.

At last the day came when Tesharah gave us permission to start our journey and the news quickly spread throughout the holt. We decided to leave the next morning as there was little preparation required and the evening meal that night was quite splendid. We didn't have anything like nupshal or mendri of course - that would have been too much to hope for - but Tesharah did allow the youngsters to raid the larder for some of the choicest foods and we all ate far too much.
Just after the meal, when Mahrham and I were about to go to bed, Teshshin came over and rather self-consciously handed me a long, narrow object wrapped in a cloth. I knew he'd been very busy recently, instantly realising it had to be my new knife. In his typically unassuming way he'd waited until almost everybody'd left the fireside before showing us his work, but I wasn't going to let him escape without getting at least some of the praise he was surely due. He sighed with resignation while I grinned broadly at him as Mahrham and I dragged him off towards Corkai and Tamori's sleeping chamber.
They invited us in with happy smiles and though it was a bit of a squeeze, we all managed to get seated somehow. I placed Teshshin's gift in the middle of the blanket, everyone watching expectantly as I slowly unwrapped it. As the last fold fell away, Corkai let out a gasp and Tamori a simultaneous whistle. I couldn't say anything, but just looked at Teshshin and then back at the knife in astonishment. It was simultaneously the ugliest and most beautiful weapon I'd ever seen. As I'd requested, it was a little longer than Corkai's short saw-sword and very slightly curved. A section nearest the haft was toothed on both edges and somewhat recessed so the teeth wouldn't catch on the belt during drawing or sheathing. The blade tapered from thick and sturdy near the haft to a narrow, whippy, rounded point and was waved like my little knife. Two grooves ran down the central spine on both sides, with narrow, darkened runnels tapering to the finely honed edges. As if that wasn't enough, the metal-wound haft was fitted with an ornate hand-guard of shining, twisted spikes and it was only when I tentatively reached out a hand to pick up the sword that I really appreciated the intricacy of the work, which portrayed interwoven mendri vines.
Every eye followed my hand as I fitted it into the guard and gave the sword a few practice swishes. It was amazingly light and wonderfully balanced and though it bore very little resemblance to the original design, I knew I would never receive a better weapon.
Corkai was still cooing at it as Tamori reached out his hand and I gave him the sword. He promptly horrified me by bending the blade to a degree at which I thought it must break, but it didn't and he looked at Teshshin with a knowing smile and a slightly raised eyebrow, accompanied by a little waggle of his head.
'How long knife take?' he said, and Teshshin looked a little uncomfortable.
'Forty-three days.' He had an almost guilty look on his face. 'But not work all time,' he added, hurriedly. Tamori patted him on the back and Teshshin visibly relaxed as Corkai took the sword.
'Knife beautiful,' he breathed. 'Corkai want!' and he made as if to sheathe it in one of his own belts, only to be stopped by Mahrham's big hand as it relieved him of the sword to Corkai's cries of mock dismay. Mahrham gave my newest acquisition a few practice swings of his own, waggling appreciatively.
'Teshshin make good knife,' he grinned. 'Mahrham want too!' He handed me the sword as Teshshin smiled in acknowledgment.
I ran my fingers down the blade, feeling how the grooves exactly followed the waves while simultaneously getting narrower and closer together. It was a consummate work of art and I hoped I'd be worthy of it.
'Make knife strong,' Teshshin said, pointing at the grooves. 'Use less metal, make lighter,' he added with a grin, watching as I started to sheathe my new possession in one of my belts. Again, it was Mahrham's hand that stopped me as he remarked with a smile that if I sheathed it like that, I'd end up being its first victim. He showed me how it should be worn to avoid breaking it or inadvertently sticking myself.
I didn't know how to thank Teshshin for the sword other than with hugs and kisses, which he accepted while protesting that no further payment was necessary. I let him know I considered myself in his debt however, to which he grinned broadly and told me I knew where the stone picks were.

Back in our sleeping chamber I found it hard to stop poring over my amazing little sword, until Mahrham took it from me with a firm hand, stuck it unceremoniously back in its sheath and started to demonstrate that there were other activities he considered far more urgent.

We left the holt just before Ifshah rose, heading back down the long, winding track towards the marshy ford above the cliff cave. Mahrham said it was the first place we could cross the river as the ravine was too steep above that point and it continued that way, right up to the foot of the glacier. The trail was easier to negotiate in the warmer weather but although we soon reached the blind valley where we'd spent the night on the way up, Mahrham decided we should stop there for the night, rather than go any further.
With Corkai acting as beater, Mahrham and I managed to kill four croki, my two by catapult and Mahrham's by the more traditional method. We were about to give up at four, when one croki made the fatal mistake of doubling back towards Corkai and although I couldn't see him because of the bushes, I did see the croki as it sailed fully ten feet into the air while emitting its last screech. We also gathered a fair quantity of fruit and berries and Corkai gave me another lesson in fire lighting. I was improving slowly but my technique still lacked something, while Corkai made it look frustratingly easy.
While the croki were cooking, I went pebble hunting to replenish my ammunition, returning to the campsite to find both my companions asleep. Ifshah was setting while a golden glow from the direction of the lower cave heralded Ifshin's imminent arrival. I turned the croki when they needed it, passing the rest of the time engrossed in yet another examination of my new sword. Every time I looked at it, I saw a different aspect of the attention to detail Teshshin had paid in executing his masterpiece. Each of the runnels for instance had three perfectly even curves, despite the fact they got progressively smaller towards the blade's tip and also had to contend with the slight curve of the weapon itself. The more I looked at the sword, the more I wanted to wrap it up and put it away for safe keeping, unless I should one day snap it as Porrhin had his. On the other hand I was aching to use it in earnest, but I certainly wasn't going to trivialise it by using it to slice fruit.

We resumed our journey early the next morning, reaching the marshes just after midday. They were more extensive than before due to the increased volume of water they were receiving, and consequently, more difficult and tiring to cross. I didn't want my shoes to get wet so I took them off, quite enjoying the squish of mud between my toes and slowly getting used to removing the occasionally bloodsucker. The footing was treacherous at times and I had to be very careful to ensure I didn't get an unintentional bath. We gathered what food we could on the way as there might be little available on the next phase of the journey, where we would have to negotiate the narrow ledges between the glacier and the cliffs, which dropped steeply to the plains below.
The campsite on the second night was makeshift and uncomfortable. The meal consisted mostly of fruit and swamp-snails, plus the one croki that had decided to swim to safety rather than run. I think we were all pleased when Ifshah duly left the sky to Ifshin and we could get some relatively decent sleep.

The third day dawned rather gloomy and when it began raining soon after we started the climb, I for one greeted the change in the weather with mixed feelings. True; it was cold, wet and miserable, but if we were heading towards Eater's nest, then as far as I was concerned it couldn't rain hard enough. We tried to hunt and gather as we travelled and to my surprise, we caught more croki than I thought we would as they seemed to dislike the rain and any large stand of bushes could almost be guaranteed to contain a few of the little things. Mahrham explained that their feet tended to slip on wet rock, so they sheltered and hid rather than ran. Not only that, but it was also their breeding season and the females would be getting heavy with the usual twin young.
In the late afternoon we passed the glacier face, a massive wall of blue ice, creaking and cracking under its own pressure, occasionally emitting a thunderous roar as a huge chunk calved from the parent to smash into the river below. The sight was at once beautiful and terrifying, my riveted attention only diverted by Corkai's frantic tug on my right belt. His other hand was pointing unsteadily at Mahrham who had stopped quite still in the middle of the track and was staring in horror at his own feet.
I'm sure he knew they were dead, but the Ifshiri's innate dread of Eater held him in its thrall and he stood there quivering in terror until I gently took his arm and pulled him away from them. My poor mate promptly crumpled into a quivering heap and I gave him a comforting kiss and a cuddle, then left him to Corkai while I examined the units. There was a group of nine and in their grey stillness and the misty rain, Mahrham had obviously not seen them until his foot had landed right in the middle of them. They'd evidently been dead only a short while as disintegration was not very advanced, but it was something about their arrangement on the path that made me think. I didn't get it until I had the thought that it was a pity the units didn't seem to have a front or a rear, only then noting that there were five of them more or less on the left side of the path and four on the right. I picked some of them up and turned them over to see if there were any clues in the orientation of the legs, but there were no differences I could see. Nevertheless, the more I looked at them, the more certain I was that one lot had been going up while the others had been going down. If I was right, then my theory about an Eater nest had just received some powerful support.
Mahrham soon called a halt for the day, probably still a little shaken and we began searching for somewhere dry to rest, preferably some distance away from what was beginning to look like an Eater trail. My hopes that we'd find a nice little cave were predictably dashed, the best protection we could locate being an overhang barely wide enough to shelter one of us, never mind all three. Mahrham and Corkai seemed satisfied however and I sat and rested my aching feet as Ifshiri ingenuity, four small trees and our blanket quickly converted the rocky nook for one into a leaf-walled lean-to for three.
Despite the fact that everything appeared to be soaking wet, Corkai had a fire going almost immediately and even though it smoked and crackled quite badly, we were soon enjoying stuffed croki almost as if we were back in the holt.
It was a bit cramped on the small blanket Corkai had brought with him and the damp wind whistling through the rocks didn't make sleeping conditions any more comfortable, but wrapped in Horban and with a warm Ifshiri cuddled on both sides of me, I was as snug as I'd ever been.

Ifshin was just setting as we woke on the fourth morning, though the overcast conditions meant it was quite dark. To my relief it was still raining, albeit only intermittently, which presumably meant we were safe from a possible Eater attack. Mahrham and Corkai on the other hand viewed the wet weather somewhat differently as they tried to keep their belts and knives dry by wearing the blankets as cloaks, while I had Horban to protect mine.
As we climbed higher, the track became narrower and more difficult to negotiate. At one point it was barely traversable and again I wondered not so much how Eater managed it, but why. If we were heading for the Eater nest, why was it in this almost inaccessible place? Despite the occasional dead unit we continued to come across, it made me start to doubt whether my nest theory could be correct and maybe there was some other reason for the units being here.
The trail started to widen out as we finally approached our destination and during spells when the rain let up a little, I could see the strange rock formation so firmly fixed in my memory. It occurred to me we should also be able to see the garden ledge behind the holt from where we were, but I couldn't pick it out. I couldn't see the mine either, though the trail leading to it was just visible.
With only a short climb left, Mahrham called an early halt to the day. We hadn't been able to hunt due to the difficult terrain and there was only a short period of good light left. This time we were able to locate a small cave and left the non-essential items in it while we went to find our evening meal. To everyone's disgust, we didn't catch a single croki however and the one smallish lizard I shot out of a tree barely gave each of us a mouthful. It wasn't the first time we'd gone hungry however, so we made the best of what little fruit we could find and settled down for the night. Mahrham had been very restrained up to now but was obviously starting to feel the need for sex, nuzzling and whining urgently as he tried to mount me. I thought it was a bit unfair to Corkai who couldn't have his urges satisfied, but far from being put out or just ignoring us, he grinned broadly and played with himself as my mate and I enjoyed each other.

Our destination was at last within reach, looming darkly above us and still recognisable, even from the foreshortened angle. As I'd suspected there might be, there was a massive cave entrance beneath the oddly jumbled rock and we approached it with some trepidation. We'd encountered more dead Eater units as we got closer to the cave, but around the entrance the ground was thick with them in all stages of decay and they crunched agonisingly loudly beneath our feet.
We got the shock of our lives as we entered the tunnel when a small group of live units appeared from nowhere and scurried past us. I think we all froze and screamed in unison, but they ignored us completely and scuttled out into the open, only to die in a shower of sparks as the rain hit them.
Holding our waterbags ready to squirt anything that moved, we crept slowly into the cave and then rather more quickly back out of it when we realised it was too dark to see very much. Luckily, some of the vegetation near the entrance was sheltered from the weather, so we managed to fashion some crude torches. It was during the collection of suitably dry twigs that Corkai pointed out that the whole outcropping was made of sparking rock and there were enough shards of it just lying around to keep the holt supplied for many years to come. We filled our empty bags and left them outside while we explored the cave.

[To be continued.]
Link to part 28 - Final: [link]
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